Make no mistake, Southern Miss has made the correct — and probably long overdue — decision to exit Conference USA and enter the Sun Belt Conference. The move was made official at a press conference in Hattiesburg on Tuesday.
Any businessman would understand the logic: cut expenses, increase revenue and deal with partners — in this case, universities — that are more like-minded.
Conference USA made sense for Southern Miss back when the Golden Eagles were competing and winning against conference mates such as Memphis, Tulane, Houston, Louisville and others. It makes no sense now when the competition is as far flung as El Paso, Miami and Coral Gables, Fla.
Southern Miss already has a history with Sun Belt teams such as South Alabama, Troy, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe. Those rivalries are something to nurture and built upon.
Don’t take it from me. Listen to Wright Waters, who has a history with both Southern Miss and with the Sun Belt. Early in his career, in the late 1970s, Waters worked in athletics at USM when Bobby Collins and M.K. Turk were building strong programs that competed at a high level as an independent. Later on, from 1999 until 2012, Waters was the commissioner of the Sun Belt. He knows both entities well enough to know they are fit.
Southern Miss, Waters says, brings a rich history of winning and a historically strong fan base to the Sun Belt. In return, the Sun Belt provides a much more comfortable and sensible home for Southern Miss.
“I’ll put it to you this way,” Waters said, “Southern Miss can use all that money they’ve been spending on jet fuel and spend it on things that make you better. I’m talking about things such as facilities, coaches’ salaries and recruiting budgets. Good coaches and good players are what make you better. The Sun Belt, in my opinion, gives them a better chance to have both.”
Conference USA has become a jet league. The Sun Belt will be more of a bus league. Jeremy McClain, the Southern Miss athletic director, believes the annual travel expenses for all athletic programs will be reduced between $500,000 and a million dollars.
That might sound like chump change to Southeastern Conference fans, but it is a huge deal to athletic programs that don’t collect millions upon millions of dollars from their league’s TV and bowl revenue.
To be sure, TV revenue won’t be that much higher in the Sun Belt than it was in CUSA, but TV exposure will be much more broad. The Sun Belt is an ESPN league with national exposure. CUSA’s main TV partners are CBSSports Network — not to be confused with CBS — and Stadium.
No matter what conference Southern Miss plays in, it must do better at the gate. That is, sell more tickets. Again, the Sun Belt gives them a better opportunity to do that.
“Division games will be drive-able,” Waters said. “Mobile, Lafayette, Monroe and Troy are easy drives from Hattiesburg. Jonesboro (Ark.) is doable. Build those rivalries and fans will travel.”
Again, a game against, say, Louisiana-Lafayette or South Alabama is far more interesting for Southern Miss fans than, say, a game against UTEP or FIU.
McClain is well aware of all that. He came back to Southern Miss from Troy where he served as athletic director for nearly four years. He knows what life is like in both leagues. Clearly, he prefers the Sun Belt where the leadership, under commissioner Keith Gill, a rising star in college athletics, appears more sharply focused.
For years now, Conference USA, which Southern Miss joined in 1995, has seemed almost like a bicycle without handle bars: unsteady at best, direction-less at worst. When Memphis, Houston, Tulane and others left, CUSA went after other large-market schools in belief they would give the league more TV appeal.
The truth, however: North Texas does not really give you the Dallas-Fort Worth TV market, any more than Florida Atlantic and Florida International give you the south Florida market. In Dallas, fans still tune in to watch Texas and Texas A&M. In Miami, they still turn the dial to watch the Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes.
TV market-size is how Southern Miss got left behind in CUSA in the first place. Despite beating Memphis, Tulane and Houston consistently on the field, the Golden Eagles got passed by during conference re-alignment because of the relatively small amount of TV viewers in south Mississippi.
Competition will be stiff. Just last season, on one September Saturday, three Sun Belt teams played three Big 12 teams (two of those ranked) on the road. All three Sun Belt teams — Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Coastal Carolina — collected huge checks for playing on the road. All three Sun Belt teams won. Both Louisiana-Lafayette and Coastal finished in the top 15 of the Associated Press’s final 2020 Top 25 poll.
It’s not just football either. The Sun Belt is intensely competitive in the spring sports of baseball and softball. Coastal Carolina baseball, which won the 2016 College World Series, finished last in its own division last season. South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette and Georgia Southern are all traditionally strong programs. Southern Miss will add much to the league. Four Sun Belt softball teams earned NCAA Tournament berths last season. Only the SEC and Pac 12 had more.
Basketball? My take is that the Sun Belt and Conference USA are quite similar as far as competition. Says McClain, “Sun Belt basketball is under-rated. I’ve seen it up close. It’s a grind.”
For Southern Miss, one potential stumbling block in switching leagues has been the exit fee, long reported to be $5 million.
On Tuesday, McClain said his school and others who leave CUSA are contracted over two years to pay the equivalent of what a share of CUSA distribution would be for those two years.
“We believe that it will be in the neighborhood of $3 million,” McClain said. “We have a plan for that.”
In the long term, the move should be worth far more than $3 million to Southern Miss. Said McClain, “This move just makes sense geographically, for our fan base and, most of all for our student-athletes.”
Gill nodded as McClain spoke, and later added, “The Sun Belt has gotten a lot better in recent years. Today, we got better.”